Tougher Sentences: The Key to Fighting Crime in Latin America?

Crime and violence
Conflict, Crime and Violence


This article was previously published in the Ideas Matters Blog, on November 28, 2018.

Latin America and the Caribbean is in a punitive mood. The penitentiary population doubled in 17 countries to 1.2 million between 2002 and 2014 as a result of tougher sentencing of criminals and could triple to almost 3.4 million people by 2030.

Citizens, meanwhile, demand harsher sentences. In Chile, one of the region’s safest countries, a government-sponsored poll released last year showed that 54% of people wanted criminals to serve more jail time. A similar trend is sweeping the region.

This is perhaps understandable. Street violence, gangs and organized crime wreak havoc in many parts of the region and have helped convert it into the world’s most violent with a homicide rate (24 per 100,000 inhabitants) that is four times the world’s average. Many citizens, grown desperate by the inability of police forces to control the situation, believe the only way to deal with the violence is removing criminal elements from society. Politicians and policymakers following their lead, give into the temptation, convincing themselves that draconian sentences are the key to public safety.

Longer sentences may have little or no impact on crime

In practice, however, this hardline approach makes little sense. Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean has soared despite the increasingly harsh prison sentences meted out to offenders in recent decades. Moreover, in other parts of the world, research shows that longer sentences have little or no effect on crime.

The most obvious way that prisons reduce crime is by simply keeping prisoners in jail—what is known by criminologists as incapacitation. The extent to which this can be effective, however, depends on how criminally active those prisoners are. Most crimes are committed by young men in their late teens and early twenties, with a peak in delinquency at around 19 years old. From a crime-control perspective, the rationale for long sentences is thus very limited.

Long prison sentences also don’t usually serve as deterrents. For long sentences to work, criminals would have to rationally weigh present gains against future costs and thus be deterred by the possibility of long spell in prison. But that can hardly describe violent offenders who may lack self-control and act more on impulse.

Sentences in the United States

The most likely outcome of harsh sentencing is an increase in the prison population that doesn’t achieve expected results in terms of crime reduction. Consider the history of the United States, the nation with the world’s largest per capita penitentiary population. Until the 1970s, the United States imprisoned people at roughly the same rate as Europe. But with growing political concern over drugs, a crack cocaine epidemic in the mid-1980s and rising homicide rates, state and federal governments began massively increasing sentences under the assumption that keeping criminals off the streets would keep people safe. By 2007 the American penitentiary population had risen nearly fivefold, costing taxpayers tens of billions of dollars each year. The number now approaches 2.3 million inmates in state, federal and other penal facilities.

In a rigorous study, researchers Steven Raphael and Michael Stoll show that this mass incarceration movement was mainly driven by policy choices—essentially regarding criminal sentencing—that had little to do with a higher propensity to commit crimes by US residents or even an increase in public concern about the threat of crime as reflected in polls.

Moreover, when California, which had had some of the strictest sentencing laws in the country, decided to release 20,000 non-violent prisoners under a reform enacted in 2011, there was no increase in violent crime and only a small increase in property crime (mostly auto theft). The research, by Raphael and Stoll, suggests that the US can substantially reduce incarceration with little or no cost in terms of public safety. It can also generate considerable savings that can even be used to reduce crime further with preventative tools, like social investment and better trained police forces.

The fundamental principal is that of diminishing returns. When incarceration rates are low and only the most high-risk and serious offenders are locked up, the benefits of incarceration can be significant. The crime-returns of incarceration decline dramatically, however, when the prison population is high, as it was in California, and ensnares people who pose relatively little risk to society.

In a world of limited resources, this is crucial. Crime has fallen considerably in the U.S. and mass incarceration is typically offered as an explanation. But incarceration alone cannot explain the crime decline where many other factors have contributed, and a similar pattern of crime decline is observed in countries that have not massively expanded their prison population. What seems indisputable is that incarceration’s contribution has come at a very high cost for the public and represents a far-from-efficient policy choice.

A critical juncture for the region when it comes to crime and sentences

In Latin America and the Caribbean, non-violent, low-level drug offenders make up the fastest growing sector of the prison population. If incarceration rates continue to grow at the current pace, the cost of imprisonment could rise  by more than $13 billion over 2014 levels by 2030. This means that at considerable financial cost to society, many non-violent people are being locked up. Moreover, there are real social costs. Excessive incarceration has a dramatic effect on poor families who are driven further into poverty by the loss of jailed breadwinners and their diminished possibilities of employment upon release.

In the US, both conservatives and liberals have come around to seeing the extremely high social and economic costs of incarcerating people accused of low-level drug offenses and non-violent property crimes. By 2016, four states—California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island—had reduced their prison population by more than 20% and today reform at the federal level is increasingly attracting bipartisan support. A report by the Brennan Center for Justice and New York University’s School of Law recommends alternative sentences like drug treatment and community service for low-level crimes. By combining that with reduced sentences for people convicted of violent crimes, the report concludes, the nation could release 40% of its inmate population and save $200 billion over 10 years with almost no impact on citizen security.

Latin America and the Caribbean, like the US, is at a crucial juncture. It could continue with current punitive trends and watch the prison population balloon. Or it could save itself immense financial and social costs by considering alternative, less punitive measures and investing the savings in other more cost-effective policies such as more and better police, teachers and health workers. Chile has implemented drug courts, which allow supervised drug treatment rather than jail for offenders since 2011. There have been limited attempts at reform in a few other countries. But a region-wide shift in attitudes is yet to be seen.

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